Worse Than Ever: Government Schools After 35 Years
As a semi-retired business writer who taught in Detroit 35 years ago, I returned to the classroom because a local high school was unable to replace a Latin teacher who had resigned. I hold an advanced degree in medieval studies and renewed my certification to teach Latin, history, and social studies. Once in class, I witnessed firsthand the politicized atmosphere of today's factory-style government-monopoly schools.
My first exposure to school politics came when I renewed my certification. The 1982 certificate listed only the courses I could teach. In contrast, the 2018 version had a 300-word "Code of Ethics" that amounted to a profession of faith in collectivism, egalitarianism, state schools, and diversity (typically limited to superficial things like skin color and sex, not ideas). Nonetheless, I proceeded, thinking I couldn't possibly make matters worse. That much was correct.
Grosse Pointe South High School is architecturally interesting, sits in a higher-income community, and is considered a good school by locals.
Grosse Pointe South High School (photo credit: umdet).
After an interview and teaching a few "test" classes to first- and second-year students, I was hired. Within a few days, however, it was clear that many students did not understand English grammar, much less Latin fundamentals. In response, I taught remedial grammar and outlined how students could pass my course with a "C" or "D." There were some excellent students, but test scores were not distributed in a bell-shaped curve. It was an "inverted" bell, or bimodal distribution — with scores clumped at the two extremes.
Poor preparation was only the tip of the iceberg. Students did not bring books to class, relentlessly complained about homework, and expected high grades regardless of proficiency. When I asked questions, I uncovered some alarming facts:
- Latin was a dumping ground for students who already had failed another language; "picking up a few phrases" was the goal.
- Many teachers expected little but awarded high grades.
- Students were subjected to parental pressure to obtain good grades regardless of performance.
- A department head had been demoted for teaching at a pre-college level and refusing to lower his standards.
- Senior teachers were dropping out in disgust; younger teachers had no choice but to accept the situation.
- Under parental pressure, the principal was establishing a process to prevent students from having to take more than one test on the same day. College prep?
In short, the school embraced grade inflation, propelled by the following dynamic:
- Parents of high-performing students are "satisfied customers." Their kids study and bring home good grades, so they think they are getting their money's worth from high taxes. But they don't know that there is no correlation between per pupil spending and student performance. And they never complain.
- Parents of low-performing students also want good "results." They hear their children's tales of woe and complain constantly.
Subjected to this one-sided feedback, administrators tacitly urge teachers to lower standards, despite proclaiming the opposite in public. Like the Dodo in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, "everybody has won, and all must have prizes."
Austrian economists have explained this behavior. Ludwig von Mises, for example, noted the human tendency to place a high value on receiving something sooner rather than later. He called it time-preference theory. The desire for immediate gratification with little effort explains the phenomenon of grade inflation. At Grosse Pointe South High School, this practice goes undetected because it hides behind a much broader trend toward low achievement — most recently documented by Bryan Caplan in his devastating book, The Case against Education. This trend is even more pronounced in Michigan, enabling Grosse Pointe students to slip under the radar.
The illusion of competence also explains why — despite falling student enrollment, which should reduce costs — Grosse Pointe and similar school districts succeed in raising school taxes. Instead of being outraged at paying dearly for abysmal academic results, those who favor school taxes double down on their support! It's a combination of psychological denial and fiscal Stockholm syndrome. In denial, "the faithful" desperately cling to the notion that their elite high-tax district is exceptional despite the data. They cannot admit they have been duped. And since they cannot escape the fiscal dragnet of this tax-fed monopoly, in a classic display of Stockholm syndrome, they adopt the stance of their captors and cheer all the louder! But to an outsider, they are playing the part of the fawning mob in Hans Christian Anderson's fable, The Emperor's New Clothes: they pretend the emperor is wearing splendid garments despite his nakedness.
Today's students are never free of the school district's watchful eye, which seems to take its cues from the CIA and TSA. But with so many parents accepting after-school surveillance (and paying for it), children never learn the sense of outrage that healthy individuals feel in the presence of Peeping Toms. Instead, they learn to love Big Brother.
Likewise, a big-government political bias shapes their views on current and past events:
- During a presentation about Gutenberg's moveable-type printing press, a student became upset upon learning that literacy skyrocketed as a result of this invention — not because of public schools. His mother is a teacher.
- Trump Derangement Syndrome was widespread among teachers, who frequently vent their political views.
- When asked about my politics at an otherwise friendly private holiday party, a school counselor revealed a comic-book grasp of and hostility to free markets when I replied, "libertarian-voluntaryist."
- In the final minutes of my last day teaching, I finally permitted a political discussion. Some students were attracted to socialism and Antifa's violence, but they were shocked into disbelief when I mentioned that Benito Mussolini, who introduced fascismo to modern politics, was firmly rooted in socialism and communism. They were further outraged to discover that the Nazi Party was steeped in collectivism and even included the term socialist in the party name, Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP).
- Ignorance about slavery prevailed. Many believed it was isolated to the United States instead of practiced worldwide for ages. They were more surprised — even resistant — to discover that the word slave is etymologically linked to the word Slav and white slavery. Moreover, they somehow "learned" that Westerners were the most enthusiastic practitioners of slavery instead of being among the first to abandon it.
- In March 2018, Grosse Pointe students walked out of classes to protest the shootings in Parkland, Florida. This occurred before revelations that the FBI failed to act on tips about the shooter, that school "security" failed to act, that Broward County Public Schools' disciplinary practices played a key role in the shootings, and that the school district tried to cover up its deeds by suing the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper for publishing documents that revealed these facts. Fortunately, the Sun-Sentinel prevailed in the lawsuit. The upshot? This school-approved Children's Crusade was based on superstitions about guns and hostility to constitutional rights.
- Gender dysphoria is the new frontier in virtue-signaling, but we know that young people experiment with new identities — adopting and discarding career choices, hobbies, and friends as they "try them on for size." But the gender dysphoria fad requires adherence to a stereotyped view:that certain behaviors are appropriate only for boys and others for girls. Some children, however, have a powerful need for attention and jump on the latest bandwagon to obtain it. Others want to please "important" adults. Shortly after I was hired, a counselor asked me to address one student with plural pronouns to acknowledge the student's gender dysphoria. This student was too young to make this choice. He may have been responding to the issue's trendiness and had demonstrated more than once an interest in fringe politics and behaviors — typical teenage stuff. I believed he was attempting to manipulate adults into playing along — another teenage pastime. Moreover, he was bright but did not do his homework or study; he didn't even know what a pronoun is! Since Latin is a highly inflected language, this request would derail the learning process. Finally, it was completely unnecessary, since I always called on students by name. No pronouns were needed. My explanation did not please the counselor, but I continued to treat the student respectfully.
Group identity and outrage culture dominate public schools. Children learn to pose as victims despite enjoying a standard of living unmatched in human history and by 95% of the world's current population. Instead of learning to function as unique beings with free choice and that the smallest minority is an individual facing a mob, they are swapping a legacy of individual rights for group identities that — unlike individuals — don't bleed and are manipulated by special interests to undercut genuine rights.
If you wonder why students at schools like the University of Michigan cannot tolerate free speech and need trigger warnings and safe spaces, look no farther than public schools. They are a political Trojan horse — a "free" government "gift" with plenty of strings attached.
Lawrence M. Ludlow provides international location analyses, technical writing, and marketing services to corporate clients. He holds an M.A. in medieval studies from the University of Toronto's Center for Medieval Studies and has lectured on manuscripts, early printing, and art history at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the San Diego Public Library. He has taught in Detroit and in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.